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Aspiring Teachers Get New Help Paying For College

colorful classroom pattern

New rules kick in today that will help aspiring teachers pay for college and complete a years-long overhaul of the federal TEACH Grant program — from a bureaucratic bear trap that hobbled thousands of teachers with unfair student loan debts to a program that may actually make good on its foundational promise: to help K-12 educators pay for their own education in exchange for teaching a high-need subject, like math, for four years in a low-income community.

"The changes announced today deliver much-needed improvements to the TEACH Grant," said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. "Respecting and honoring teachers who serve students with the greatest needs also requires that we ensure these educators receive the support to which they are entitled from this important federal program without having to jump through unnecessary hoops."

In Dec. 2018, the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos committed to overhauling the program and, last summer, posted its more flexible revisions. Among those changes that go into effect today, teachers will no longer have their grants automatically converted to loans if they fail to submit annual certification paperwork. Instead, with eight years to make good on a four-year teaching requirement, teachers won't have their grants converted to loans until completion of the required service is no longer feasible.

The rule changes to the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant Program were outlined by the U.S. Department of Education nearly a year ago but only go into effect today. And they are the culmination of a story that began several years ago, when the Government Accountability Office, followed by an NPR investigation, revealed that the program's strict paperwork requirements — what Cardona calls "unnecessary hoops" — were tripping up teachers who were keeping their end of the deal.

In accordance with the program's old rules, if a teacher did not submit annual paperwork on time documenting their teaching service in a qualified school, their TEACH Grants were automatically converted into loans that must be paid back with interest. Teachers who tried to appeal this conversion were given little recourse and told the process was not reversible.

Kaitlyn McCollum was teaching high school in Tennessee when her federal TEACH Grants were turned into more than $20,000 in loans simply because she had narrowly missed a paperwork deadline. In the spring of 2019, her debts were erased as part of the department's overhaul.

"We won," she told NPR. "We raised our voices and they finally heard us. Disbelief followed by a relief like I have not felt before."

While the program's flaws date back to its beginning, in 2008, it was the Trump administration that agreed to a remedy and apologized to teachers.

"We've put teachers who didn't deserve this stress, this pressure, this financial burden in a position that is frightening and confusing," the Education Department's then-acting undersecretary and acting assistant secretary, Diane Auer Jones, told NPR in 2019. "It seems like a small thing to do to say, 'I'm sorry,' but I'm very sorry. And we want to work to fix it and correct it."

The Education Department tells NPR that, since the program's overhaul began, more than 7,000 educators have successfully petitioned to have nearly $47.5 million in loans turned back into TEACH Grants. For teachers who can prove they have already completed their required service, their debts are simply discharged. For teachers still serving, the conversion means they can resume the deal they made with the department and work to keep their grant money.

The new regulations also give teachers more options for pausing their service obligation, create a formal reconsideration process for any teacher who believes they've had their grants converted unfairly, and expand the scope of the program to include not only low-income communities but also high-need, rural areas where recruiting and retaining teachers can be difficult.

The Biden Administration says it wants to expand the TEACH Grant, making it more generous. If passed by Congress, the American Families Plan would increase the grant for college juniors, seniors and graduate students from $4,000 a year to $8,000 and would also make it available to many early childhood educators. In a release, the Education Department said it expects these changes would increase the number of TEACH recipients by more than 50 percent, to nearly 40,000 in 2022 — welcome news to school leaders in remote and high-need communities that sometimes struggle to entice new talent to the classroom.

This story has been updated to include new Education Department data.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.